The South Asian American community has much to be proud of in their contributions to the United States. South Asians have proven to be leaders in all sectors of American society, ranging from academics to business to politics, as well as leading in socioeconomic status and education attainment.
South Asians have ascended to key public office positions, including two governors, a congressman, many federal prosecutors, a federal appellate judge (who was on the shortlist for the Supreme Court), and in this past year, a presidential candidate. There are also South Asian elected and non-elected public officials on the state and local levels throughout the nation. However, even with these successes, South Asian political participation at any level of government is not proportionally representative of the South Asian population.
In my home state of New Jersey, the N.J. Department of Labor and Workforce Development estimated through 2010 U.S. Census Data that major South Asian groups accounted for approximately 3.5% of the State’s population. Yet, in the state legislature–which consists of 80 Assemblyman and 40 State Senators–Assemblyman Raj Mukherji is the lone South Asian member. This is the case despite the fact that New Jersey has South Asian representation in state commissioners, party chairs, councilmembers and other positions.
This lack of involvement in government and politics can be attributed to many factors, one of which is culture. As far back as I can recall, my parents have always wanted me to be a doctor. This is a common refrain in the South Asian communities–that the children of first generation descent should enter highly paid professions such as the medical, legal and engineering sectors,–but alongside this laudable advice I rarely hear encouragements that South Asians should become political activists, government officials or elected representatives, despite the fact that it is members of the political class that often shape the professional and social environment for all of us. If our community wants to increase our influence and build on our already impressive successes, this will have to change.
First, the message has to change, and young South Asians need to hear the truth that government service and political participation are noble career options. It is only through a sustained cultural effort that we can cultivate the qualities and leadership skills that will allow our young people to one day run for elected office or to work as a public servant in our government.
Second, we need more participation from civil society groups and other nonprofits. Pursuant to this, we recently created the New Jersey Leadership Program (NJLP), a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization with the mission of promoting South Asian American youth participation and education at the local level of government in the State of New Jersey. Through this program, youth of South Asian descent who are currently in high school or college can experience government firsthand through a 6-week internship with a local mayor’s office, a city agency or a state legislator. Also as part of this program, the NJLP will host a speaker series, networking events and career development workshops. Interested youth should apply by April 20 at www.njlead.org.
The NJLP builds off of many other non-profits that promote Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) and South Asian involvement in government and politics, such as the Washington Leadership Program (WLP), the Asian Pacific American Institute of Congressional Studies (APAICS), SALDEF’s SikhLead, and more. We believe that NJLP can help by allowing students in high school to begin thinking about careers in government and politics, and learn about their local government; building a pipeline to the aforementioned national programs to experience the federal government, and eventually enter careers in these fields. As a previous fellow in the WLP and APAICS programs, and in conjunction with the South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) Leadership Program, these programs truly solidified my interest in public service and gave me a formal avenue in which to pursue this interest as a member of the AAPI and South Asian communities.
I hope the New Jersey Leadership Program can do the same for youth in New Jersey.
The New Jersey Leadership Program (NJLP) is a non-partisan, nonprofit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to promoting South Asian American youth participation and education at the local level of government in the State of New Jersey. NJLP and its fellowship program focuses on developing leadership, building public policy knowledge, and filling the pipeline for South Asian Americans to work in government or pursue public office at the local, state, and federal levels. To learn more about NJLP, please visit www.njlead.org